Take Me to Church

Three sisters from Minnesota dream up a community gospel choir right here in Hermosa Beach.

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  • Written by
    Fabienne Marsh

It’s 7 p.m. on a Monday night at Coast Music Conservatory. The Hermosa Beach Gospel Choir is heavy on altos but leans on tenors and sopranos. In walks a 14-year-old tenor with his younger sister (and her homework) in tow. He sings like an angel, and a chair is pulled up for his sister the instant she says she’s a soprano.

“You never know who’s going to show up,” says Angie Deters, the business manager of Coast Music Conservatory. “It’s a community choir, and all are welcome.”  
Enter Roosevelt Christmas (no lie), who that night becomes the choir’s new director. Raffia Ford, the Berklee College of Music graduate who carried us from inception to performing on the Oxygen network’s Fix My Choir, has a solo career that’s taking off.

How three sisters—Beth Rohde, Angie Deters and Marti Harris —from Minnetonka, Minnesota, moved to Hermosa and started the gospel choir is a story in its own right. Before the choir, Coast Music Conservatory was founded by Beth, along with her husband, Matt. When they wanted to expand the school, Beth summoned her younger sister, Marti, who had been auditioning for musical theatre in New York City, and Angie, her older sister, a business major from the University of Minnesota.

Beth’s dream of a gospel choir was realized at a wedding. When the choir director was a no-show, Raffia, who like Beth had been hired to sing gospel at the wedding, stepped up to lead the choir. “Who are you?! You’re amazing,” Beth said and offered Raffia the job.

The diversity of the Hermosa Beach Gospel Choir defies all stereotypes. “People think that you’ve got to be black and you’ve got to be Christian,” Angie says, “but we’ve got Jews and Christians and little me, who has not set foot in church for 10 years. Then there’s Kumiko from Japan who speaks little English and sings her brains out.”

We fall down but we get up  
Cause a saint is just a sinner
who fell down … and got up. 

Add to the mix a French national (the choir sang at her wedding) and a list of “formers”: former nurse, former advertising executive, former TV executive who is starting her own business in order to spend more time with children, and former USC graduate in aerospace engineering who now teaches dance, vocals and acting.

Some have lost loved ones, others are cancer-survivors, some are praising God—but everyone loves to sing and is inspired by gospel music. “Infectious,” “uplifting” and “joyous” are the adjectives most often applied.

“I express my emotions through singing,” says tenor EJ Benford. “Gospel allows you to do that.”

The group’s musical backgrounds are as varied as its members. Those weaned on Handel’s Messiah soon learn about Quincy’s. One Tennessee native’s taste for Elvis and The Chuck Wagon Gang is expanded to include vocalists like Daryl Coley and Smokie Norful.

For many of us, Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise” now stands beside “Amazing Grace” as one of the most beautiful songs ever written. “‘The Best is Yet to Come’ is the sisters’ all-time favorite,” Angie says, “because it speaks to life: ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!’”

Which brings us to the call Angie got from a casting agent a few weeks after the choir had formed. Asked if the gospel choir wanted to participate in a new reality television series for the Oxygen channel, Angie said, “No way. We express our gratitude and love though music.” She added, “We didn’t want to do a Honey Boo-Boo reality moment.”

Cut to the very charming and persuasive Fix My Choir co-hosts, Michelle (Destiny’s Child) Williams and gospel star Deitrick Haddon. “Deitrick turned out to be an exceptional human being,” Angie says. “He and Michelle really cared.”  That said, their diagnosis was crushing: The choir lacked both “soul” and “purpose.”

The sisters mentioned their ongoing work with autism outreach and education. Patrick Storey is a Coast Music Conservatory scholarship student whose place on the autistic spectrum is compensated by a gift for music. Two of the three sisters have children on the autism spectrum.  In word and in deed, they have showcased Patrick’s extraordinary voice to elicit fundraising support for those with autism.

The Hermosa Gospel Choir spent 12-hour days rehearsing, performing and dancing, with Deitrick tapping into the sisters’ story about autism. He elicited “soul” and “purpose” from the choir with the frenzy of an ER doctor resuscitating a patient.

The paddles that awakened us came in the form of Deitrick’s own LXW gospel choir: They ambushed us in a sing-off battle. Pitted against them, we sang “Great God” for our very lives.

In recent weeks, Roosevelt Christmas introduced us to works by Byron Cage and “We Fall Down” by Donnie McClurkin. If you find yourself singing one of our recent favorites in the shower, you can be certain that you are welcome to join us. And whatever your spiritual background, you are church.